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Post No. 35

June 5, 2010

A couple of blog posts about the pronunciation (in the vernacular – we Maltese have our own language, you know) of a type of dairy product that isn’t technically cheese have generated an incredible amount of comments.

A prima facie the response is disproportionate to the stimulus. At the end of the day who cares if the stuffing of that scrumptious kannol is called  rikotta or irkotta? The blogger infused the dichotomy with undertones of social disparity. I say she did it deliberately – just to liven up the room, mind you.

Malta had been an British colony “officially” for nigh on 200 years. “Unofficially” we are still. Social classes (and their ramifications) are still going strong.  And I suspect that this is the reason for the apparently inexplicable response to the issue.

The blogger said that irkotta is a corruption of rikotta. The illiterate (read lower) classes crunched up rikotta into irkotta.

I say that rikotta sounds contrived and  foreign to a Maltese speaker – especially when used to describe assorted morsels such as pastizzi tar-rikotta, torta tar-rikotta, kannol tar-rikotta . I suspect that the people who fancied themselves as “privileged” tried their damnedest to emulate the British in everything – going as far as trying to sound foreign among compatriots.

Speaking in English is a distinguishing feature to this day. If you’re Maltese and speak English with a peculiar affectation then you are unmistakably high class. (I’m not, in case you were wondering).

Maltese is a language of Semitic origins. Malta is conveniently located bang in the middle of the Mediterranean. It was (is?) a convenient port of call for the heavy marine traffic in this sea. It is reasonable to expect an influx of foreign words into the vernacular. That, and the fact that Malta has always been a colony of one empire or another. You can hardly expect Maltese to remain pure as the driven snow.

And herein lies the rub :).  Speaking impeccable Maltese, although symptomatic of a good education, has more to do with “politics” than love of our language. Perfect Maltese is only ever written. It is very rarely spoken – if at all. Anyone who uses Maltese to communicate on a daily basis – like me – will immediately pinpoint any pretensions either way. I will not go into words, phrases and intonations that characterise social class.

Social climbers will speak in “English”. If the family has been in money for more than two generations the accent will be the unmistakable affectation. If the money is brand new the accent will be quite Middle Eastern with the occasional silent ‘r’ when the speaker remembers s/he’s trying to be upper class. This brings us right back to the rikotta/irkotta business.

Native English speakers will have lifted the word from Italian. For them the stuff is ricotta. A Maltese person wanting to remind everyone that s/he has or aspires to have associations with the upper classes will say rikotta –  probably with an indefinite “uh” sound at the end and the accent in the wrong place too.  The overwhelming majority of normal Maltese-speaking Maltese people – like me – will say irkotta. A Maltese person who speaks perfect Maltese for no other reason than to counterbalance the English-speaking Maltese will probably use the more Maltese-sounding irkotta from now on.


From → Misfires

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